Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The right to bear nuclear arms?

We’ll try to stay serene and calm,
When Alabama gets The Bomb.
– Tom Lehrer, Who’s Next
I'll start with a disclaimer: No, I don't advocate the violent overthrow of the United State government. And I never will, as long as we have free speech and fair elections. The following discussion is theoretical and historical only.

Minute Man Statue, Lexington
Photo source: Wikipedia
The tragic shootings in Colorado this weekend have predictably reopened the national debate about gun control. Nanny Bloomberg suggested that police go on strike until tougher gun laws are in place. Former Seinfeld star Jason Alexander tweeted for a ban on “assault style weapons.” “What purpose does an AR-15 serve to a sportsman that a more standard hunting rifle does not serve?” Mr. Alexander asked. “They are not the same as handguns to help homeowners protect themselves from intruders. They are not the same as hunting rifles or sporting rifles.”

But the Founding Fathers didn’t codify the right to bear arms in the Constitution to preserve our right to shoot deer and protect our flat screen TVs. They did it because they had just overthrown their government by violence, they thought it was a good thing, and they wanted to make sure their descendents could do the same if there were ever again “a long train of abuses and usurpations.” That this was how they thought is clear from The Federalist #46, where James Madison wrote, “Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of.”

In Mr. Madison’s day, the cutting edge of weapon technology was the muzzle loaded rifle. Adapting his reasoning to today’s weapons raises more questions than it answers. The consequences of a civil war - or of a lone madman - are far more horrific than they were in the eighteenth century. Is the goal to ensure that the people and the states (Mr. Madison’s “subordinate governments”) have military superiority over the federal government? If so, is it necessary, in Mr. Alexander’s words, to permit us to “all run out and purchase a tank, a grenade launcher, a bazooka, a SCUD missile and a nuclear warhead?" I suppose you could make the argument – if you’re not one of the people involved – that an occasional Aurora massacre is a reasonable price to pay to maintain our freedom. It’s impossible to make the argument that the occasional destruction of a city in a nuclear firestorm is reasonable.

Is it still possible and desirable to arm our people well enough to keep the feds at bay? And if not, what’s the “barrier against the enterprises of ambition” of the federal government?

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